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NASA's TESS telescope just discovered two new Earth-like planets

The planet hunter has detected a "super-Earth" and a "hot Earth" less than 60 light years away.


The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), NASA's newest planet-hunter, just hit another milestone: It has discovered its first exoplanet.

On Monday, NASA shared the space telescope's "first light" data, revealing hundreds of thousands of stars in the southern sky that it has set it sights on and confirming that, yes, things were working as they should be. That means TESS can focus its four cameras on stars, looking for slight dips in brightness which suggests a planet may have been "transiting" around the star.

It seems that data was only an appetizer though, as a preprint paper uploaded to the arXiv server on Sunday suggests TESS has already found its very first planet: a super-Earth orbiting the star Pi Mensae (π Men), nearly 60 light years away. NASA's TESS Twitter account announced the discovery on Wednesday, but said discovery still needs to be reviewed before it is validated.

If the data is validated, the new super-Earth, which was dubbed "π Men c", will go down as TESS's first discovery on its two-year mission to find Earth-like exoplanets around nearby stars. Its orbital period is just 6.3 days long.

And the new super-Earth isn't alone. Another planet known as "π Men b", about 10 times the size of Jupiter and with an orbital period of greater than 2,100 days, also calls Pi Mensae home.

But wait, there's more. Literally: More new exoplanets!

A second prepint paper, uploaded to arXiv on Wednesday, suggests that TESS may have already located an "ultra-short-period planet" around the M dwarf LHS 3844. That star is a little closer than Pi Mensae, at a touch under 49 light years away. Currently dubbed "LHS 3844 b", the planet zips around its star with an orbit taking just 11 hours. It is likely highly irradiated and thus would not have an atmosphere, but those assumptions will need to be tested with spectroscopy. Moreover, the research team cautions that it may actually be orbiting a low-luminosity secondary star.

The data will need to be validated before the exoplanet is officially added to our ever-expanding list of nearby celestial bodies. Both observations came via the TESS Alerts system, which is currently in beta, and allows TESS scientists to follow-up on planet candidates before the first TESS data release in January 2019.

What is most mind-boggling is that TESS has only just begun its mission. The space telescope launched on the back of a SpaceX Falcon in April and officially began observations in July. What wonders still await? How many exoplanets will we find?

TESS is just the start of analysis for many of these exoplanets and the data it provides allows scientists to dig a little deeper, revealing more about the planets they find using spectroscopy. If the first month is anything to go by, an influx of exoplanet data will start to filter out from the spacecraft as it continues to map the southern sky, hunting for planets.

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